Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Martin Short

Live from Silicon Valley

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Last week, on an impulse, I picked up a used copy of Live From New York by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, an oral history of Saturday Night Live that came out more than fifteen years ago. I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to get to it—it’s a fantastic read, particularly if you allow yourself to browse at random, and it seems to have singlehandedly kicked off the oral history boom that has become pervasive enough to be the object of satire itself. There are countless anecdotes that I’d love to turn into the subject of a post, but I’ll start with this one, from legendary comedy writer James Downey:

Lorne [Michaels] at the time was anxious to get into movies in a big way, and he had a deal with Paramount. And different writers and teams of writers—like Tom Schiller wrote a movie—each had movie ideas. Lorne was pushing [Al] Franken and [Tom] Davis and myself the most to do a movie. But we didn’t really have an idea. We had the deal before we had the idea, which is not a good way to do anything. So from like the summer of 1980 on and off for the next two years, we just in a desultory way wrote the screenplay, which once we finished it Paramount was then able to officially reject.

The italics are mine. And while it’s tempting to agree that you should start with the idea, that’s often not how it works in Hollywood. Instead, like Michaels, you get a development deal, which amounts to a bet by a studio that you’re talented enough to eventually come up with something interesting.

And you don’t just see this in the entertainment industry. Yesterday, my wife brought my attention to a post on Hacker News with the title “We have a great team and capital but can’t find a good idea.” The poster noted that he had a group consisting of himself and two friends, one with a lot of money from a stint in private equity, the other with a doctorate in computer science. They had “investors that are willing to write blank checks” and “cash in the bank to continue experimenting,” but they were missing one crucial element. The poster elaborated:

We have read everything on how to come up with startup ideas (ranging from Paul Graham essays to The Mom Test). We have ran interviews with friends in corporate and startups, asked old colleagues, attended conferences, organized meetups in our city, a ton of time spent networking, etc. The few product ideas we came up with following the above process we dropped, often because we discovered that that space is ultra crowded or commoditized. We will not give up but are getting unsure on how to break the stalemate. Any tips or advice?

The suggestions, not surprisingly, ranged from “stop looking for ideas and…start looking for problems” to hiring an “idea generator” to getting out of the game entirely. (My favorite: “Find an unsexy domain that you have more access to than the average person. Start to build domain expertise in that area as quickly as you can…Loop back with the people in the unsexy industry to get feedback.” I like this because it’s basically how I wrote my book.)

It’s easy to smile at this sort of thing, but it reflects an assumption that still permeates much of Silicon Valley, which is that what matters isn’t the idea, but the team. Hacker News is an affiliate of the startup incubator Y Combinator, which essentially provides development deals for promising entrepreneurs, with a business philosophy to match. In his book The Launch Pad, Randall Stross says of its cofounder Paul Graham: “Graham is much more interested in the founders than in the proposed business idea. When he sees a strong team of founders with the qualities that he believes favor success, he will overlook a weak idea.” Elsewhere, Graham himself has written:

The fact is, most startups end up nothing like the initial idea. It would be closer to the truth to say the main value of your initial idea is that, in the process of discovering it’s broken, you’ll come up with your real idea…Since a startup ought to have multiple founders who were already friends before they decided to start a company, the rather surprising conclusion is that the best way to generate startup ideas is to do what hackers do for fun: cook up amusing hacks with your friends.

And the notion that the team itself is what truly counts has led to a lot of talk, legitimate or otherwise, about the concept of the pivot, in which a startup that began by doing one thing abruptly decides to do something else.

In fact, the underlying point here seems sound enough. Ideas are cheap, and incubators are probably right in investing in founders rather than in concepts. If I had the money to be a venture capitalist, I’d do the same thing. But in the end, the real test of the team is its ability to generate and execute a good idea. (Most people who get development deals of any kind have already managed to do it at least once.) And you only get the tools that you need to do anything well by coming up with ideas on your own and taking them as far as you can. Just as you can learn vastly more from writing a novel from scratch than from fanfic or ghostwriting somebody else’s book, shepherding an idea to start to finish is the most reliable way of developing certain indispensable skills. As Chris Rock says in Live from New York:

The best thing about the show is that when you did write a piece, you were responsible for it. You were in charge of the casting. You were in charge of the costumes. You produced the piece. I wouldn’t know what the fuck I was doing if I hadn’t been on Saturday Night Live. It’s the absolute best training you can have in show business.

You could say much the same thing about any project, as long as you see it to the end. Its lifespan may not be any longer than that of your average comedy sketch, but its lessons remain—which is just another way of saying that ideas and experience emerge from the same cycle. And the apprenticeship is necessarily brutal, in Silicon Valley or anywhere else. As Martin Short puts it elsewhere in the same book: “You’re a star on Saturday night, but if forty-eight hours later you haven’t come up with an idea, you’re a failure.”

Learning from the masters: Arrested Development

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As long as we’re on the subject of ensembles, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the best ensemble sitcom of the decade, and arguably the best television show of any kind: Arrested Development. Like most people, I caught up with this series long after it had been canceled, and for a while, I was reluctant to try it, mostly because it was clear to me that this was a writer’s show, with elaborate plots and storylines, which are usually deadly to comedy. I couldn’t have been more wrong, of course: once I finally gave it a chance, thanks to its availability on Hulu, I discovered that this is the rare series that successfully blends comedy, farce, and surrealism into a flawless whole. And while Arrested Development remains so singular a series that it turned out to be difficult—even for its creator, Mitch Hurwitz—to apply its lessons elsewhere, it’s still tempting to ask how the show does what it does.

Granted, nothing ruins a joke like explaining it, and Arrested Development can hardly be reduced to a set of rules. Still, it’s possible to gently examine the roots of the show’s appeal. First off, it has a strong cast playing extraordinary characters, all of whom compete fiercely and successfully for the viewer’s attention. It’s worth emphasizing how unusual this is: in most ensemble shows, not every character is equally compelling, but in Arrested Development, everyone in the primary cast is ridiculously watchable, and even among the scores of recurring characters, there’s barely a dud (except perhaps Martin Short’s painfully unfunny Uncle Jack). And as the AV Club’s Steve Heisler recently pointed out, the enormous cast works, from a dramatic perspective, because each character has a clearly defined selfish agenda. (I once used The Godfather as an illustration of how large casts need to be defined by their objectives, but Arrested Development may be an even better example.)

Second, this is an incredibly organized show. One reason that Arrested Development struggled to find an audience is that it makes the viewer work, or at least pay attention, in a way that other sitcoms don’t. As David Mamet likes to point out, you can tune into a show like Friends halfway through and know, within seconds, what the story is. Arrested Development is the exception: it asks us to keep track of a huge cast, an intricate ongoing plot, and throwaway gags that often don’t become clear until after multiple viewings of an entire season. This isn’t entirely unprecedented: The Simpsons did it for many years. But it took The Simpsons at least three seasons to ramp up to its peak velocity, while Arrested Development hit the ground running. And, as in most great shows, form is inseparable from content: it was the first sitcom to use the now-popular documentary format, but so far, it’s the only one to use that form (with cutaway shots, archive footage, and above all Ron Howard’s terrific narration) to increase the density of information that the viewer can process.

Third, and perhaps most crucially, the show used its exceptional cast and innovative narrative techniques to tell strong, emotionally grounded stories. True, the emotion usually only crept in at the last minute of each episode, but as writers on The Simpsons like to point out, fifteen seconds of sentiment is often all you need, while two minutes is probably too much. Arrested Development‘s greatest achievement lies in making you care, weirdly, about the characters: Will Arnett’s work as Gob stands as a master class in turning a gloriously unsympathetic character into someone easy to love. The result was a show that, for all its frenetic pacing, was also willing to take its time when it counted—for instance, in the slow burn of Charlize Theron’s arc as Rita, Michael’s mysterious girlfriend, which took five episodes to build to an unforgettable conclusion. And for all its imitators, it stands alone. There may or may not be a movie; Mitch Hurwitz may never have a chance to make a show this good again. But he did it once. And that’s enough to ensure his immortality.

In the meantime, though, here’s some Tobias:

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